|The Orioles have done a tremendous job rallying behind Buck Showalter's leadership in 2012. (US Presswire)|
ST. PETERBURG, Fla. -- Look around this Orioles clubhouse, and you keep searching for reasons this team has already made the playoffs and forced the Yankees to game No. 162 to decide a division where everyone had the Orioles finishing last.
There's Nate McLouth, who had time to become a star and to be released twice before his 30th birthday, and is back to playing a lead role.
There's the long-ago Twin Lew Ford, who was with the Long Island Ducks earlier this year, before he became a Bird.
There's a whole group of young, largely unrecognizable but exceedingly solid pitchers.
Sure, it's a plucky bunch. Of course, it's a young team at a time when quitting time in baseball has been moved up from 40 to 35.
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But you keep looking.
In the manager's office you find the turnaround artist, Buck Showalter, who transformed Stump Merrill's Yankees back into winners in a New York minute, and who lifted the Diamondbacks from embryos to the playoffs faster than possible. Undoubtedly, he is the main man here.
No, he says. Not him.
Anyone could guide this fine young team, Showalter claimed.
"Whether it had been Ned [Rice, a young baseball operations exec in the office with two writers], Peter Schmuck [the other writer] or you managing the team, they would have reached this level,'' Showalter proclaimed.
True or not, with Showalter guiding them, not a fresh-faced office kid or either of the two grizzled writers, here they are. They are 161 games in, and they keep coming up with new heroes and storylines.
Rangers reject Chris Davis made it homers in six straight games here Tuesday night to tie Reggie Jackson's Orioles record in a 1-0 victory against the Rays. Yes, that Reggie Jackson.
Davis is a nice story who never expected to be mentioned in the same sentence with Reggie. "It kind of blows my mind," Davis said.
Davis hit a shot to dead centerfield that might have flown clear to Hillsborough County had it not slammed off the awning just below the scoreboard. That one drive alone beat Rays star James Shields, who struck out 15, went nine innings and pitched "probably the best game we've had pitched against us all year,'' Showalter said.
Yet, that was all that was needed for 28-year-old Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez, formerly a career minor-leaguer, and the usual complement of relievers to close out the victory and kept the magic going.
Gonzalez is a Cinderella story who personifies his team. A journeyman who was 0-7 last year in the Red Sox system and who averaged fewer than three wins a year before this one, Gonzalez is now 9-4 for Baltimore.
The Orioles started the six-year, minor-league free agent at Triple-A and he kept putting up zeros, first as a reliever then as a starter, before joining the Orioles and showing he can locate his fastball, throw any of his pitches in any count and get major-league hitters out.
"I'm speechless," Gonzalez said.
Showalter could be right in his claim that this is a more exceptional group than you'd suspect, much better than their individual resumes would suggest. For all of the in-game edges Showalter wins by out-studying and out-thinking everyone else, his trail from New York to Arizona to Texas to here shows us that, most of all, he knows how to gather players and form a team that can win when no one expects it.
In the Bronx, he took Stump Merrill's squad and had them in the playoffs within a few years. In Arizona, he started from scratch and had the Diamondbacks in the playoffs while they were barely babies.
And now again, Showalter's unusual blend of over-preparedness, tough love and Southern charm that has helped carry this band of perennial second-raters and relative unknowns to the playoffs is within one game of the vaunted Yankees.
Ah, the Yankees. That is the organization where Showalter grew up before being summarily dismissed following a bitter 1995 playoff disappointment to Seattle (conveniently, he had the new job for the expansion D-Backs waiting for him when he was fired by George Steinbrenner).
Showalter, true to form, won't admit there's anything special about challenging the Yankees. In his world, nothing is special. Nothing stands out.
The TV in his manager's office is without volume, like him. There can be drama on a team, Showalter said, but it better not involve the manager, who holds his tongue in on-the-record moments.
For public consumption, he'll try hard to make the case he's one step up from dope-dom. In a one-hour interview, he used the phrase, "I ain't that smart," more times than could be recorded. Loosely translated, what that means is: I'm not the story. It's not me; it's them.
It is them. But it is he who put them together, who formed the Orioles' first winning team since Davey Johnson left town following the 1997 season, so fed up was he with team owner Peter Angelos. Showalter didn't do it by himself, of course. He had considerable help from GMs Andy MacPhail and Dan Duquette, two smart guys who unlike Showalter don't spend a lot of time telling you how dumb they are.
Showalter and Duquette make an odd pair, the brilliant bumpkin and the gambling Amherst man, who gambled on himself this time when he returned to a GM job for the first time since being fired in one of John Henry's first acts as Red Sox owner nearly a decade ago. Duquette acquired Jason Hammel in a deal for Jeremy Guthrie, a Stanford Renaissance man whom Orioles people didn't view as quite gritty enough. Duquette also acquired Wei-Yin Chen, who has thrived without fanfare on one of the best multiyear deals around while adding many veterans to provide the right mix to the team that is either the luckiest or pluckiest going. Showalter's contributions are less tangible in some cases. Orioles star Adam Jones calls Showalter's biggest contribution the "accountability factor." When he got to Baltimore a couple years ago, he donned his tough-guy persona, scaring some off. "If you're a weak link, he weeded you out," Jones said.
It wasn't just who was weeded out but who came in. The trade for Davis, who has 33 home runs, looks like genius now.
Showalter knew Davis from his days in Texas, when Davis was trapped in the minors, and the manager instigated the trade for him. But Showalter credits Angelos, who's known more for being discredited. Showalter points out that Angelos' willingness to add $2 million to the deal allowed them to obtain Davis, never mind that Davis looks like he's worth $50 million and Angelos may be worth a billion.
Jones, Davis and unmovable catcher Matt Wieters, whom Showalter credits for the relatively quick Orioles games ("the pitchers never shake him off") are the everyday stars on a team where the greatest strength, fittingly, is in the lunch-pail bullpen. That the team has won an impossible 20 more one-run games (it's 29-9) than they've lost has carried them here, and that shouldn't be chalked up to luck but rather a crazy good bullpen that's short on big names but long on moxie. The 'pen is the reason the Orioles are 74-0 when leading after seven innings. The one pitching star is the team's tough-as-Baltimore finisher. The plainly named Jim Johnson is the closer with 51 saves in 54 tries despite having only 41 strikeouts in 68 2/3 innings.
Showalter and teammates speak admiringly of Johnson's charitable side, which doesn't reach the mound, where he has been second to only the impenetrable Rays closer Fernando Rodney in the league this year. The starters are a particularly anonymous bunch, with Chen the only one who's started more than 20 games.
Gonzalez, 4-1 with a 1.60 ERA over his past six starts, embodies this mostly no-name crew that's bucked everyone's last-place predictions.
Those projections were just "fantasies," Jones said, with the reality being almost the antithesis.
The Orioles didn't necessarily buy what the prognosticators were selling. But even they have to pinch themselves sometimes.
"It ain't been surreal," Jones decided, "but it's been fun."